Census 2021: the changing linguistic landscape in the UK

February 8, 2023 by Alison Tunley

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linguistic landscape in the UK


As the data collected in the 2021 census is gradually processed and released by the Office for National Statistics, interesting patterns are emerging about the changing linguistic landscape in the UK. Covid caused the Scottish census to be delayed by a year, so the findings reported here focus exclusively on England and Wales.

For the second time since 2011, the census included a question on the language spoken by respondents, asking “What is your main language” as well as collecting information on other languages spoken. A key reason for requesting this information is to facilitate local service providers in identifying where there may be a need for language services. NHS users might need translation and interpretation services, for example, and a local authority might need to lay on additional English language lessons for non-native speakers.

The proportion of UK residents who speak English as their main language (or in Wales, English or Welsh as their main language) has fallen slightly from 92.3% in the 2011 census to 91.1% in 2021. In other words, 8.9% of people in England and Wales speak a language other than English or Welsh as their main language — this equates to roughly 5 million people.

A report in The Conversation suggests this may be an underestimate, citing official government figures published in June 2022 from UK schools that record 19.5% of pupils as having a first language other than English. A potential source of this discrepancy may be way the census question is phrased. The census requires respondents to select a “main language”, so a young person using English in their educational setting might feel that was their “main language” even if the language they first acquired and continue to use as their main mode of communication at home is not English. People who reported English as their main language were not able to list any additional languages that they spoke.

The most common main languages, other than English (or Welsh in Wales), were: Polish (1.1%), Romanian (0.8%), Punjabi (0.5%) and Urdu (0.5%), with the largest increase in speakers being for Romanian (rising to 0.8% from 0.1% in 2011). Data showing regional variability can be viewed via the interactive census maps, which also offer a wealth of other local data. The North-East of England had the highest proportion of people reporting English as their main language (96.5%), whereas London had the lowest proportion (78.4%).

In addition to spoken languages, the 2021 census shows a 40% increase in respondents citing British Sign Language as their main language. And in recognition of the number of households that do not have English as a main language, assistance in completing the census questionnaire was provided via interpretation services, with translation leaflets available in over 50 languages.

For the first time, the 2021 census also looked at the use of different languages within individual households. Of UK households consisting of more than one person, 63% speak the same language. One of the interesting forthcoming studies promised by the ONS as part of its ongoing analysis of the data will be a more detailed analysis of the Welsh language household data. This should shed light on patterns of Welsh language transmission and retention between the generations. Another study promises to explore the intersection of ethnicity, language, national identity and religion. It seems there will be plenty more to pique linguists’ interest for some time.

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